thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Rebound: Katniss & Body Snarking

In body politics, gender, girl culture, Hunger Games on March 27, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Phoebe B.

GLG contributor Brian Psiropoulos recently alerted me to the trend of body snarking Jennifer Lawrence. This Slate article takes on the New York Times and others’ truly destructive and sexist criticism of Lawrence’s body. But I find myself still unsettled even by the Slate response, which argues against the criticism of Lawrence’s body as not skinny enough to play Katniss by asserting that Lawrence is in fact skinny. This assertion, while true, is not the point. Rather, as the Slate article does note, this body snarking is exclusive to Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss and is not a kind of scrutiny the male actors undergo. Oddly enough, the film version of both Peeta and Gail’s characters did not align with the ways in which I imagined them. But this disjuncture is not reason enough to suggest that their bodies ought be different or would make them more believable. Given that the snarky criticisms about these male characters’ figures are conspicuously absent, it seems that the discussion of Lawrence’s body has everything to do with her being a woman.

Firstly, Katniss is a heroine that refuses to be sexualized in a typical way for action heroines (think Angelina Jolie in Salt). And Katniss is the one that does most of the saving. In fact, as one who does most of the saving, we can locate Katniss’ heroine status, namely in her refusal to be sexualized in a typical way for action heroines. By critiquing Katniss for not looking the part, it seems that these critics assert that action heroines should look a particular way (read: tiny waist and giant breasts). If Katniss resembled Angelina Jolie, for example, I wonder if anybody would be complaining. And importantly, this male-driven fantasy is something that Katniss wholeheartedly refuses to give in to. In fact, Katniss’s main draw is that she is highly capable, smart, and strong. She does not need Peeta, nor does she need to be saved by him. Instead, she saves him. She is, after all, pretty awesome, and what I love about her is her at times non-normative performance of gender.

Secondly, these criticisms suggest the value associated in Hollywood, and in U.S. media culture more generally, with the too-thin female body. While the Slate article makes a point about the unrealistic nature of the criticisms associated with Jennifer Lawrence, I think that it misses the larger social structure in which this kind of discussion is both at home and deeply troubling. And while again Slate is right, it seems like the truth of the matter is not so much about the ways people who haven’t eaten much look, but rather about how they are expected to look. As Leslie Kinzel has brilliantly pointed out many times bodies look and act differently and health cannot, nor should not, be associated with a particular size or look. Hollywood wreaks havoc on so many women’s bodies, and to suggest that Lawrence’s weight makes her unbelievable as Katniss reiterates the value, and marketability, associated with thinness.

But what say you, GLG readers? And Hunger Games fans?

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  1. I was most amused/disturbed by the efforts to hide “the actress is too large for the Hollywood norm” behind “she’s not skinny enough to be from an impoverished district.” That whole logic completely disregards the repeated emphasis on her extracurricular efforts to procure food and how she is generally a Dystopian Artemis awesome-pants that gets a lot more fresh air, food, and exercise than many of the other tributes.

  2. “Dystopian Artemis awesome-pants” is the best phrase ever.

    Also, I find this really disturbing because, what? They wanted emaciated wasting away? What, they wanted Kristen Stewart from Breaking Dawn I, and look so thin that it made me want to puke? Or they wanted to her be like Natalie Portman in Black Swan and actually starve herself for the part? I have to agree with your assessment here – this seems to have much more to do with finding a new way to veil critiques of bodies that aren’t terribly, terribly thin. On a note completely unrelated to portrayals of hunger and lacking all critical sophistication, I’d also just like to say that I think Jennifer Lawrence is amazingly hot as well as talented and I just simply cannot understand why people even think she has a non-normative body. What is normative these days? Dead?

    /end body rage.

  3. It seems to me, like Melissa is saying, that to have someone look “like Katniss” would require having an actress who looked nearly starving. How do you achieve that without hiring someone who is malnourished? And with enough problems with malnourishment in our own country (Share Our Strength, anyone?), how can we ethically advocate for or reward such a condition? I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it seems to me a person can depict hunger without looking malnourished. Body types respond differently to food, exercise, and hardship, and movies are adaptations of books. They always are. They have to be. Without a chest-waist-hips measurement of Katniss provided for us in the book, it is always going to be an adaptation. Jennifer Lawrence already doesn’t have olive skin. Are people complaining vehemently about that? (Probably not, because that doesn’t relate to the all-important “are non-skeletal women fat?” debate. Yargh.)
    Also, in the book Katniss spends the whole long train ride to the Capital eating as much as she can in order to fill out her under-nourished body and give herself a fighting chance. No one complains about that, do they?

  4. I don’t really have anything to say except for: yes!

  5. I felt (and wrote in my review) that both Gale and Katniss looked too well-fed (I gave Peeta a bit of a pass because he’s not Seam and is the baker’s kid). Gale was far more obvious of a problem, and think anyone commenting on Katniss/Lawrence should be talking about him (and Peeta, perhaps) as well. However, I don’t think that pointing out a lack of versimiltude in appearance to what the book outlines (in Katniss’ words, no less) is necessarily the same as falling for the trick of believing in whatever body image norms are proposed by the fashion/media industry.

    Actually, to the contrary, I think the filmmakers emphasized Lawrence’s curves in the training scenes to sexualize her in the very way Katniss disallows in the book, and one most would feel uncomfortable with if Lawrence were actually a 16 year old actor. This could be written off as a costuming choice only, but the tight bodysuit she wears in the film is certainly a departure from the tunic in the book and there are other plausible reasons (expectations of a young male audience, especially those who know her from X-Men: First Class?) I would suspect for such choices.

    As for actors starving themselves to look emaciated, or otherwise gaining/losing weight for a role, there is a quite obvious gender difference. Christian Bale and Viggo Mortensen, among other male actors, have been lauded for the body transformations they underwent to look a part. Shouldn’t a feminist perspective argue that it should be lauded if a female actor does the same as part of her craft?

    As for a few points on details raised above:

    The train ride in the book is less than 24 hours. Not much time to put on weight. Likewise the training sessions last 3 days (maybe 5-6 days total they spend in the Capitol).

    As for Katniss and Gale’s self-sufficiency in the book as justification for them looking well-fed, they certainly eat better than most in the Seam, but Katniss does make note of being thin and malnourished and waking up starving on several occasions. Also, if their hunting and gathering brought them enough food to be fully nourished, why would they both be signed up for the maximum amount of tesserae?

    -Shane

    • I think you raise a lot of great points … the one thing you noted that was striking to me is the difference between male and female actors starving themselves, which granted is out there. But, I think that it actually becomes more of a problem when women do it (for example, Nathalie Portman in Black Swan) because while it is meant to look unhealthy in some ways (like Bale as you mention), it also is often discussed as the body ideal for those women. They are lauded for being so skinny and it is figured as exciting that they can lose that weight. That brand of reaction, I think, problematically champions that unhealthy female body as actually a kind of ideal or something to aim for, which seems different from the reactions to Bale, for example.

      But in the example I discuss in the post, I think the post-release snarky comments about Lawrence’s body are problematic as she is being criticized for weighing too much rather than being lauded for weight lost. And, that distinction feels important to me …

    • ps I also really like the note you make about the ways in which the suits Katniss wears in training do sexualize her in a way that feels very different from the book. And, I think does draw on her X-men character but also, as you say, the film’s marketing to young men.

    • Shane – I think it’s true, as you say, that movie stars (both male and female) often get lauded for extreme weight loss for the sake of their roles. But I don’t think that means that it isn’t problematic — on both counts. As Phoebe says, one important distinction is that extreme thinness for women is frequently discussed as achieving an ideal. While men do face pressure to conform to certain body ideals — and that’s certainly a problem — there is still far less cultural emphasis on men’s weight, and the body ideal for men typically isn’t rail-thin.

      I also think it’s important to note that just because popular culture praises male stars for weight loss doesn’t mean that all feminists necessarily applaud that too, or that a feminist position would apply the same reasoning to female movie stars and weight loss without accounting for important differences in cultural pressures and beauty ideals.

      Finally, as Phoebe says in her post, hunger is going to look different on different bodies. I absolutely think it’s true that Katniss and Gale are supposed to be underfed and malnourished, even with their hunting and trading prowess. But hunger won’t look the same on everyone. And while the book does say that Katniss is very small for her age (likely because of malnutrition), that’s one area where I don’t have an issue with the movie deviating from the script. I think it’s far more problematic for a major film to demand that its female star — a role model for young girls and teens all over the world — appear close to starvation for the sake of realism and/or faithfulness to the text. I’d much rather HG place emphasis on Katniss’s fundamental strength, integrity, courage, and flaws than on her body type.

  6. Yes, definitely yes.

    On a slightly related note, did you guys see the body-snark over the fact that Cinna and Rue were black? (http://jezebel.com/5896408/racist-hunger-games-fans-dont-care-how-much-money-the-movie-made) There is so little response to the fact that Jennifer Lawrence’s coloring differs from the very straightforward description in the book, but people can’t handle that she isn’t skeletal?
    Can you think of another film in which the audience was so disgustingly upset over casting all because of body types? I can’t. Any film adaptation will have actors that don’t match our imagined characters from the book (or who don’t do justice to a character because of talent or some other ability), but I feel like the HG response has gone down a depressing and awful sewer of hate. Which is especially sad to me because HG has such a powerful and empowering message, especially for young women. Is the body snark a weak attempt to subvert Katniss’ ability to save herself and the men in her life (and countless others)? If they can somehow distract us from this fundamental aspect of the story, maybe it won’t impact thousands of young women who might go on to be Dystopian Artemis awesome-pants themselves? (YES – best phrase ever!)

    • yes and yes! and i’ve been sort of following the really racist and hate-filled reactions to both Cinna and Rue’s casting and I think you raise so many good questions about it … I definitely cannot recall another time where casting a film initiated, and unveiled, this kind of racist response.

  7. Just to add to the discussions of actors and weight, in the public/critical sphere (i.e. not necessarily feminist as Sarah notes) female actresses tend to be lauded for putting on weight (or revealing their less-than-perfect bodies): Charlize Theron in Monster; Renee Zelwegger in Bridget Jones; Kathy Bates in About Schmidt. Not that these extremes of “craft” should not also be recognized but, as Phoebe mentioned earlier, a starved Hollywood actress and an actress who starved herself to fit a role are virtually indistinguishable.

  8. […] Rebound: Katniss & Body Snarking « girls like giants […]

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